Downtown got darkest not in the middle of the night, but right at the moment the sun fell behind the mountains. The streetlights weren’t on yet. The tops of the towering buildings were still bright, but pitch-black alleys separated their foundations. For now, the alleys were lightless but not lifeless. During the day, downtown bustled with people working or shopping. A different kind of Syndicate City citizen arose at dusk.
In one of those alleys, a filthy man in a shabby coat exited a rusty van. He went around back and opened the creaky rear doors, removed a big plastic box and slammed the doors shut. Something rustled in the box. He shook it and a fearful whimper came out of it. With his coat buttoned all the way up, he hustled with his package down the alley. At the end he turned and stepped into the doorway of a business. The neon Closed sign lit his drawn features and stubble. He swung the plastic box against the door, BANG BANG BANG.
Unintelligible shouting came from inside the store. He needed money so he reached forward and tried the handle. The door opened. He peered inside.
“What the fuck! Shut the door you fuck!” a man shouted at him.
Another yelled, “Even cocksucking crackheads like you know it’s getting cold!”
The man with the box stepped into the shop, Under The Hood. They sold racing gear, much of it illegal like fake emission restrictors and nitrous oxide. The shelves were fully stocked and several men sat around smoking and talking.
“I don’t suck cock.” He stepped inside the shop.
“Aw Henry, we didn’t mean nothin’,” the shop owner Dave said.
“Yeah I did!” one of the patrons said.
Dave blew smoke and flicked ash on the floor. He nodded at the plastic box. “You got a new practice dummy for me there?”
Henry said, “Yeah.”
Dave pulled aside a curtain and waved Henry through. They went into a small room that didn’t store auto parts. There were shock collars and chains though.
Henry said, “Here, let me show you.” He leaned down to open the box.
“I don’t need to see it, dumbass. It won’t be alive long enough. I probably won’t even waste food on it. I got customers ready to buy now,” Dave said.
Continuing the sale, Henry said, “It’s a border collie. Real healthy. She’ll put up a fight.”
Dave rolled his eyes. “As long as it moves is all that’s important. We’ll drop it in a cage with a hungry dog that weighs five times what it does and let nature take its course.”
Henry twitched. He was starting to feel symptoms of withdrawal. At this point he would sell anything to anybody.
Dave put $25 in Henry’s dirty hand and ordered him out of the store. Dave planned to sell the stolen house pet as a practice dummy to a dog-fighting ring.
Elsewhere in Syndicate City a little boy cried in his bed. His single mother walked around the neighborhood in the cold drizzle, shouting, “Molly! Come here girl!” She wished she could whistle loudly. As her hopes waned, her heart ached. There was no way she could afford to replace their collie.
Henry left the illegal parts store and scurried to his van. Across the street and 38 floors up, an elevator door opened. A woman stepped out and opened the glass doors to the roof. She kept her short brown hair flat, bangs plastered to her forehead. Her costume was a dark vest over a green long-sleeved shirt with a plunging neckline and faux leather pants. Wedges gave her stature. Her eye makeup was smoky, her lips pomegranate.
She walked out onto the roof and eagerly looked out over the city. Streetlights and neon signs flickered to life all over downtown. The first raindrops fell. Tick tick tick tick. She took exotic gadgets out of her backpack and stored them in various places throughout her costume. She rushed through her gear-check.
The media hadn’t reported on Spree yet. She’d only been fighting crime with her superpowers for a short while. Her uncanny speed allowed her to move faster than most people could track. Fortunately her ability to launch herself at walls was balanced by her spring-steel tendons. That made her seem as if she bounced all over the place. Her snap reflexes allowed her to perform seemingly impossible stunts.
Spree moved to the edge of the building. She had an appointment to keep.
Syndicate City was a cesspool of crime and corruption. It’s not that crime went unpunished; the city’s jails were overcrowded and sentences could be arbitrarily severe. However the city ranked as one of the most crime-ridden. It was the country’s carjacking capital. If a mobster got arrested, his slick attorney usually got him off on a technicality. If a thug stole a purse, no one chased him. If a woman was assaulted in an alley, nobody got involved.
Many cops were on the payroll and even more followed their own rules, like Sergeant Garlan. He would beat a punk for information, throw a snitch to the dogs to cover his trail and look the other way when it was wise to do so. No drug dealer in the city was happy to see him, though. Sergeant Garlan’s interrogation methods were effective.
The tabloid Daily Watch was the city’s biggest newspaper. If a story wasn’t sensational, the Daily Watch made it sensational. Common headlines included:
“Inside Star QUARTERBACK’S House of Horrors! Wife Splits with Broken Nose!”
“Secretary of State Adopts ALIEN BABY from Area 51!”
“SEX-Crazed Madman Finds New Job After Prison … As Nanny!”
Downtown had the three G’s: grit, grime and graffiti. It was called Syndicate City not just because of organized crime but also because many corporations had their headquarters here.
The last time a cape-wearing do-gooder appeared here, he was on a PR tour for his new book. Once again, he had saved the galaxy. The celebrity superhero didn’t even stay in the city overnight. Superpowered people existed in the world, and a few lived in Syndicate City. Spree was one of them.
Out in the suburbs, a big man with a square jaw sat on a retaining wall, staring at an empty house across the street. Level didn’t know why he came here but it calmed him. His superpowers were obvious in his enormous chest and bulging biceps. Level could punch a hole in a metal door and throw a motorcycle a block. He didn’t need to go on patrol tonight. He wanted to study the empty house on Deckard Street a while longer.
A man looked out his window at a dilapidated church in a run-down neighborhood. He turned away from the sign that said Jesus Sa es. On his desk sat a new gorget, an armor piece that protected his neck. Visor took the gorget over to his suit of blue and white power-armor. It fit perfectly like he thought it would. Visor was an enemy of evil in his power-armor and with each new piece he could feel himself coming together.
A strange little man squeezed his way through a tiny, dirty tunnel into a decaying warehouse. He definitely didn’t want to drop what he had found. It was important to him. Inside, shelves and mounds of junk filled Packrat’s warehouse to the ceiling. He scrabbled along a path through the junk, his pink tail twitching furiously. Packrat came to an array of computers. He retrieved the drive from inside his cloak and connected it. His eyes glittered and his nose twitched while his computer connected to the drive. When it came up, he went to work. He would figure this mystery out.
Teenagers out past curfew walked by an old factory, but they didn’t see the scruffy figure hiding in its shadows. Once they were past, the figure shuffled away. His limbs were bent, though his muscles were dense. Had the children seen his face with its feral features and thick brow ridge, they probably would have screamed and ran, but he was no threat to them. Primitive stalked a drug dealer who had been selling to primary school children. He bent low and sniffed the ground. His heightened sense of smell picked up the spoor. Neck bristling, Primitive followed the trail.
Spree stepped to the edge of the skyscraper and put her goggles on. She marked the ocean to the east for direction. Whenever she got to a point like this, the back of her neck tingled. She scratched it and smiled.
I wouldn’t make a good undercover cop. I don’t have the patience for it, she thought.
Then she leapt out into the air. She gained 27 feet before tilting toward the ground. She popped her wingsuit and plummeted. The rain was spitting but she wasn’t worried about its effect on the wingsuit. She rapidly accelerated down and forward. Soon she was blocks away from the skyscraper.
She was wound up like an eight-day clock. Her heart pumped faster and her face flushed with excitement. Her arms and legs were spread wide to catch as much air as possible. The wind blasted past her. She descended below the tops of the tallest buildings and rocketed through the corridor above Crews Boulevard, Syndicate City’s main street.
Her goggles protected her eyes and they painted holographic images ahead of her, showing her where to turn. Her night vision was perfect but the heads-up display gave her a glide path to pull off the stunt.
Flying above lines of traffic, she considered her recent decisions. A stray thought popped into her head, What is your personality? She felt the need for action. Somebody had to do something. Tonight she was a cape. She didn’t think much beyond tonight.
She zipped between several buildings, still 21 floors above the ground, and checked the time – right on target. A grin spread over her face; she couldn’t help it.
She rounded another corner, the fabric of her wingsuit making a loud fluttering noise. Soon she saw her target: floor 17 of a large office building. Lights were on in some of the windows. With the aid of her HUD she targeted the correct one. The floor above it was dark. In fact, a shadow was out of place there, as if a patch of black smoke clung to the side of the building.
Spree tilted up to slow her descent. She caught a lot of air and slowed way down. At the last moment she spun so that her feet were forward. SMASH she hit the window! The impact would have broken a normal person’s ankles and dislocated their hips.
As she hurtled through the room she hit a button that retracted her wingsuit. Her momentum took her into a big TV and right through the office wall behind it. CRASH! She said, “Oof!”
The dual explosions shocked the men in the conference room. Paper flew everywhere. Unnoticed, a shadow slipped into the room from outside and slid under the table.
Spree came to a stop in an office. She jumped up, yanked off her goggles and ran back into the conference room. The men stared at her in disbelief. Several wore expensive suits. Some wore jeans and hoodies. Her eyes landed on a briefcase on the table.
One of the men in a hoodie dove for the briefcase but Spree was faster. She jumped up and came down with both wedges on his arm, snapping it against the hard wood. Men shouted and reached inside their coats. She dove off the table into another man, tackling him and plowing him into a wall. They didn’t know who she was or why she was attacking them, but they knew they were in trouble.
One pulled out his Glock-17 to fire at her back, but a shadow rose from under the table and engulfed him. The men turned and stared in horror at it. It swirled like inky black tentacles and spun away, with him inside. They could hear the man’s muffled screams from within the shadow. They shouted at each other.
“Can we shoot it?”
“Fuck if I know!”
Spree came out of the rubble and punched a man hard enough to knock his teeth out. The shadowy distraction was an opportunity. She grabbed two potted plants and threw them hard, knocking men down. A man with a TEC-9 sprayed bullets at her. BANG BANG BANG, rapid automatic fire! She ducked below the thick table for cover. The shots tore up the expensive wood. When he reloaded, she jumped up. She saw the idiot had his back to the open window. One hit would send him to his death. Spree had no love for drug dealers or their attorneys. The Sabata gang was paying their lawyers with a briefcase of blood money. She grabbed coffee cups and threw them fast, ricocheting them off a window, hitting the TEC-9 thug in the back of the head. It didn’t knock him out, so she bounced a few more off the table, driving him away from the open window.
The shadow abruptly released its target and sped toward the man. The first thug, now released, had a blank gaze. He screamed once, “Aaaagh!”, nearly bursting his lungs, and collapsed to the ground.
The men in the room panicked. They opened fire at anything, mainly Spree. Most of the bullets were wild shots. Two slugs caught her. One tore her protective vest on the side. The other hit her full-on in the thigh. A spray of blood erupted from her leg but it didn’t slow her down. She sped forward and slapped a gun from a man’s hand, then flipped him into another. She made a difficult target, smacking aside punches and chopping necks.
She moved with confidence. Everything was going to plan. Spree’s ally Tattershroud moved from one man to another, swarming each and doing something terrible to them within that cloud. Whatever happened in the darkness broke men, but she didn’t want to know.
Spree found herself on one side of the table with the men on the other side. She raised her arm high and imagined force flowing into it. She was still discovering the full range of her extraordinary abilities but she knew she hadn’t hit her limit. Tattershroud called her ability “hysterical strength” but she thought that was sexist. She dropped her arm like an axe and split the table in half with a loud CRACK!
Men reeled back from the explosion of splinters. The superhuman display of strength from a woman staggered them. She flipped half of the table at one group of them, flattening them against the wall. The rest ran. She lifted the other half, tilted it vertical and threw it overhand down the hall, hitting them and knocking them every direction. STRIKE!
Spree turned and saw Tattershroud in his normal form, holding a man aloft. The superhero’s cape fluttered and trailed off into smoke. His face was a black death mask, his costume a gray affair with tiny skulls all over it. The thug he held stared at him with wide white eyes. He wasn’t struggling much now.
“Shroud,” Spree said.
In a raspy voice Tattershroud replied, “Yes?”
“We agreed not to kill them.”
He paused. “Okay.” He dropped the man, who passed out on the way to the carpeted floor.
He pointed at her leg. “They tried to kill you.”
The blood had mixed with the wet clothes and made her whole leg red. Spree looked down as if seeing the wound for the first time. It hurt badly, now that she saw it. Her impact-resistant costume and dense muscles had slowed the slug so it didn’t hit bone, but she could feel the foreign object.
She grimaced and concentrated. The area stiffened as the muscle knitted together. The blood flow slowed. From inside out, she pushed the malformed bullet. It tore muscle, which healed right behind it. Soon a bulge formed at the entry point. The slug popped out and fell to the floor. She picked it up and flicked it out the broken window.
Tattershroud pulled off his mask. His young face had a look of admiration. Spree noted again how her crime fighting partner’s youthful face didn’t match his gruff, raspy voice.
“I wish I could do that,” he said.
“Aren’t you safe in your Shroud form?” She often shortened his superhero name.
“Semi-corporeal. I take less damage, but I can’t push bullets out.” He looked at the wrecked room. “Where’s that briefcase?”
She pointed at it, in the hand of an unconscious suit. Tattershroud practically skipped to the thing. He put it on a chair and popped it open. It was packed with $100 bills. He grinned and shut it.
Spree said, “We have to move. Did you bring the shit?”
“Yup.” He pulled a bag out of his cloak.
She wondered how much he could store inside his long cape.
They took the guns from everyone in the room and replaced them with similar guns. Then they liberally sprinkled the men with cocaine. They left a goblet of coke on a corner table.
“See you outside.” He took the briefcase and guns, turned to black smoke and flew out the window.
Spree was sweating from the fight and wet from her flight through the rain. She looked at the scene of devastation. Now that her adrenaline faded and she was healing, she could look around with clear eyes. She felt no pity for drug dealers and their dirty lawyers. They had concussions, abrasions and contusions.
She didn’t know what kind of crime fighter she would be. Maybe her revealing costume was a bit much – she hadn’t decided – but she knew she wasn’t a killer.
She used a tiny phone to call the police. As soon as she heard sirens coming, she looked east to the lake to get her bearings and jumped into the night.
Spree met Tattershroud in an alley a couple blocks away. He crouched on top of a wooden fence, his mask back on.
Flashing lights and sirens arrived at the office building, so Spree knew the criminals and their lawyers had some explaining to do. The cocaine may not be enough but in the rush, they would probably claim the guns as their own. That was a trap, since Spree and Tattershroud had stolen them from the police evidence room a few weeks ago. Anyone caught with them would be hauled in for sure. No cop would protect someone who broke into a police station.
“What’s the take?” she said.
“$140,000 more or less.” His raspy voice was tense. Spree knew he would split it exactly. They’d worked together for a few weeks and he thought of himself as a hero, just like she did.
She caught the briefcase. He kept the bag with his half. He wasn’t being very wordy.
“Is everything okay?” She wondered if he had qualms about stealing from criminals. Maybe he was having doubts about excessive violence, but he seemed to enjoy their adventures as much as she.
Tattershroud said, “I’m going to meet my sidekick. Got to get going. Message said it was important.”
That surprised her. Spree had no idea he had a sidekick. He never mentioned it before. She had one too, a normal human who provided her with technical gadgets. Spree had never mentioned Dr. Piper to Tattershroud either. Until they knew each other better, Spree felt like shielding Dr. Piper.
“You’re in a rush to see your sidekick?”
“Okay no, that can wait! Jesus!” he said. “You kept me waiting long enough. I was hanging outside that window for hours. I have to take a wicked shit!”
That caught her off-guard. “Oh, um, well then, sorry. Bye!” Embarrassed, she backed away as he changed form and slipped off into the darkness.
She bounded up to a fire escape, then climbed it to the roof. Her thigh didn’t sting anymore and the nick on her side was gone. She liked to heal right after fights because her regeneration didn’t work while she slept. She had to concentrate to purge her system.
On the roof, she set down the briefcase and watched the cop cars at the office building.
Tattershroud has a sidekick. That’s a surprise, she thought.
He acted like a solo vigilante, except she noticed he tended to follow along with her ideas. They met stopping a string of muggings on Landsdown Road and since then had escalated their attacks on organized crime in the city. She didn’t know his real name and he didn’t know hers. It was all secret identities until now.
Dr. Zoey Piper had been with Spree for a while. She built gadgets like the wingsuit, always trying to anticipate what Spree needed next. Dr. Piper was consumed with building better gear but when she wasn’t doing that, she was supportive of Spree and her adventures, inquiring about her thoughts and feelings without offering judgment.
When Spree needed someone to talk to, she could always find the good doctor. Dr. Piper knew Spree’s real name, Angie Ryder. During their long conversations, Spree didn’t remember Piper revealing much about herself. Sometimes she thought Piper wrote down what she said.
Well this outfit needs repairs so I’ll catch up to her later, Spree thought. First I need more info on the Sabata.
Next issue: Stay with us loyal readers! The battles between our brave superheroes and the forces of evil continue! The sinister streets of Syndicate City seethe with deceit!
– End of sample chapters for Synthetic Mind.